Two Utah natives talk about working on Pixar’s ‘Soul’

One artist drew on his snowboarding and skateboarding days in Utah to give moves to the movie’s star, Joe.

(Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar) The spirit of jazz musician Joe Gardner, right (voiced by Jamie Foxx), tries to show an unfinished soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) about the joy of New York pizza, in a scene from the animated film "Soul."

For every character in a Pixar movie — like Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist and music teacher in the company’s latest, “Soul” — a lot of people are involved in their creation.

At least two of the people who brought Joe to life are from Utah.

“It’s very collaborative,” said Matt Majers, a Salt Lake City native and Cottonwood High School alum whose work at Pixar goes back to “Finding Nemo” in 2003. “I imagine Joe was touched by 60 or 70 people.”

[Review: Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is a warmly surreal look into what makes humans who we are]

And Jared Fong, a Salt Lake City native and Brigham Young University animation graduate, helped create the computer model — the structure of the character, with many points of articulation that animators then move to create the character’s motions — for Joe’s form in the soul realm.

“If there’s a shot of just my character [Joe], that’s my work on the screen,” Fong said.

They are among the hundreds of animators and artists who worked on “Soul,” which Disney is offering starting Friday, Christmas Day, on its streaming service, Disney+. (Unlike Disney’s “Mulan,” “Soul” will be offered without an additional charge.)

(Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar) Matt Majers, a Salt Lake City native and Cottonwood High School alumnus, is an animator at Pixar Animation Studios, and worked on Pixar's new movie "Soul."

In “Soul,” Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is on his way to a career-changing jazz gig when he falls into a New York City manhole. His soul ends up on his way to The Great Beyond, where all souls go when they die, but he jumps off and lands in The Great Before — where souls get ready for their trip to Earth, and learn what will “spark” them to pursue their dreams as humans.

Joe is paired up to mentor an unfinished soul, named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who has managed to avoid an assignment to Earth while irritating a host of mentors, from Mother Teresa to Copernicus.

“Soul” is directed by Pixar veteran Pete Docter, who’s known for exploring big ideas, in such films as “Monsters Inc.,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”

“His movies are always so conceptual,” Majers said of Docter. “He walks that line. He sort of seems to live in those questions: How do you make a movie like that? How do you answer that?”

‘A constant conversation’

In creating the model for Joe’s soul-world form, as well as for other souls, Fong said there’s a lot of back and forth with Docter and other artists. “He’s very specific about visual stuff,” Fong said.

“Since they’re ethereal, we don’t know how it’s going to be rendered,” Fong said. For example, as the soul characters first developed, they didn’t have arms. “All of a sudden, [the writers say] ‘They need to have arms for some poses.’ And we’re, like, ‘Great.’ … There was quite a lot of exploration.”

(Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar) Jared Fong, a Salt Lake City native and Brigham Young University alumnus, is an animation modeler and rigger at Pixar Animation Studios, and worked on Pixar's new movie "Soul."

Working with Docter, Majers said, “is a constant conversation. The big question was: Where do these personalities come from? What matters about your life? He talked about coming to this point where he’s got a successful career, but there’s more to life than that.”

Majers said he could relate. “I’m in my mid-40s. [Animation] has defined me forever. It’s like this consuming quest. I love what I do, but there’s so much other stuff,” Majers said.

Majers started animating Joe by thinking about the physicality of the character. “The physicality was a pretty specific thing. It was a slip-and-fall sort of thing,” Majers said.

He relates the animation back to his five years as a snowboarder and skateboarder, before he went to CalArts, the legendary art school whose alums include Docter and Pixar directors John Lasseter (“Toy Story”), Brad Bird (“Ratatouille”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”).

“I figured if I could figure out how to control my body to make a skateboard do a specific trick, I ought to be able to translate that same idea into trying to make a series of drawings feel like something,” Majers said.

Majers also aimed to stretch beyond the physicality, to tackle Joe’s emotional moments.

“Typecasting exists. You see it in live action, and it’s the same thing in animation,” Majers said. “You get known for doing a type of shot and, when you’re in the thick of it, you get [assigned] that kind of shot because they know you can do that.”

Pixar has worked to break through such typecasting, to “listen more to the artists,” Majers said, “and find out what they’re really hungry for, to try to keep them excited about what they’re doing.”

‘Where everyone ... took it’

It’s a surprise, Fong said, to see how a character model he helped create appears in a finished film.

“It’s like I made these things, and I don’t see them for a long time,” said Fong, who said he works with several BYU alums who were hired by Pixar around the time he was. “Then I come back and they’re fully animated and beautifully lit. So it’s pretty shocking to see the difference of where I left it and then where everyone else took it.”

Like most people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Majers and Fong have had to adjust to working from home instead of Pixar’s massive studio complex in Emeryville, Calif.

At Pixar, Majers said, he’s surrounded by 150 other animators. “It’s this huge creative bubble where I can always find somebody to look at shots or talk about my take vs. their take on how a character thinks,” Majers said.

“Now it’s a lot more fiddly. You send a text, and maybe this person can help you right now, but maybe they’re feeding their baby. It’s that human contact, that’s the thing that everybody misses.”

Fong agreed. “You don’t have those spontaneous [moments of] running into people that are working on other things, where you can see what new stuff is coming, get some inspiration in other people’s work,” Fong said. “It’s a little more isolating to work at home, where you just go into a single Zoom meeting and [are] hanging out with your team.”

There’s a plush screening room at Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters, and it’s the place where, under normal circumstances, a lot of the Pixar team would have gathered to watch “Soul” together.

“The idea of not getting to see it in a theater is really hard for me,” Majers said. “I look forward to seeing it hopefully play, after all this is taken care of, and we can go watch a movie in a theater. … It’s a really honest, amazing film that feels so right for right now.”

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